Apollo liftoff: For 90 years, the heart of Harlem has enriched the world

Like today, it was also a Friday, 90 years ago exactly, Jan. 26, 1934, when a shuttered burlesque house on 125th St. reopened as the Apollo Theater. Unlike Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater, which didn’t allow Black patrons or performers from the time it debuted 20 years earlier, the Apollo had no restrictions and welcomed African-Americans to grace its stage and fill its seats.

And come they did, from the Harlem neighborhood and far beyond, to entertain and be entertained, making the Apollo a center of American popular culture. Outstanding Black singers, musicians, comedians, actors and dancers found their way to the stage and its Tree of Hope on their way to stardom.

The Apollo became for decades a showcase for Black performers often with few venues to appear at. Its Wednesday night amateur contest saw winners like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, as well as countless others who didn’t reach the stratosphere, all before an audience that itself was famous for letting those on stage know precisely how they felt, from cheers to boos.

As society opened up more opportunities for Black Americans during and after the 1960s, the Apollo wasn’t the only place for Blacks to play and it sputtered to a close in the 1970s. Credit Percy Sutton for reviving the Apollo. He got the state to buy the property and set up the nonprofit Apollo Theater Foundation to manage the facility, but there was an insider’s deal, with a contract for Sutton to produce the for-profit “Showtime at the Apollo” syndicated TV show.

The Apollo became little more than a soundstage for the TV show, dark most of the time, in dire need of repairs and broke, receiving little of the promised proceeds from the TV show.

Exposing the rot in 1998, this page put an end to that, ushering in a new board led by Dick Parsons and the Apollo took off. It is being fully restored and expanded and is booked with all kinds of acts.

On to another 90 years.

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